Poetry to survive the end of civilization

Posted on February 2, 2017 by Sharon Lacey

The recent spike in sales of George Orwell’s 1984, which hit No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list last week, says something about our dystopian times. If the future gets bleaker, we’ll need literature that not only records civilization’s collapse, but also withstands it.

Christian Bök has spent the last 15 years working to create an unkillable poem, the Xenotext, which may shed light on long-term storage methods for texts. For this ongoing poetry project, Bök uses what he refers to as a “chemical alphabet” to encipher a poem into the genome of Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium capable of outlasting terrestrial civilization. To create the code, or “chemical alphabet,” he ascribed letters of the alphabet to the three-letter combinations of A (for adenine), C (for cytosine), G (for guanine) and T (for thiamine) that describe the order of nucleotides in a DNA molecule.

Once integrated into the organism, Bök’s poem acts as a set of instructions which cause the bacterium to manufacture a protein. This response, according to his original “chemical alphabet,” is itself another text. The Xenotext therefore acts as both a repository for texts and a poetry-writing machine. The set of poems is at once dystopian and aspirational, pastoral and futuristic.

During his residency at MIT, Bök spoke with CAST about the Xenotext, archiving texts in DNA and existential threats to poetry.


A Conversation with Christian Bök


Your doctoral research was in an unusual area. What is pataphysics?

I have three degrees in English literature, two from Carleton University, and the third from York University in Toronto. For my dissertation, I studied the influence of pataphysics upon the 20th century avant-garde. Pataphysics is an imaginary philosophy created by the French playwright Alfred Jarry. He describes it as a philosophy, or a science, of imaginary solutions to problems that have never existed. It’s a scientific reappraisal of poetry and a poetic reappraisal of science.

When asked to describe a pataphysical speculation, I always cite the example of this perpetual motion machine described by some nameless scientist: Imagine that whenever you drop a piece of buttered toast, it always lands butter-side down, and imagine that when you drop a cat from a height, it always lands on its feet. If we pretend that these two folkloric aphorisms were laws of physics, then you could build a perpetual motion machine by tying a slice of buttered toast to the back of a cat with a butter side out. If you hold that construction from a height and drop it, voila, you’ve got a dynamo. That’s a pataphysical speculation.

I always say it’s where science goes to daydream, and where poetry goes to conduct experiments. It’s a whimsical philosophy, and it had some impact upon two or three experimental poetic movements of the 20th century that have always been inspiring to me.


Could you describe your Xenotext project and the kinds of research that inspired you? In your talk the other night, for instance, you mentioned the work of geneticist J. Craig Venter who in 2010 replaced the genetic code in a microbe with synthetic DNA that carried, among other quotations, the line from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

The Xenotext is a long term, ongoing project. The project requires me to write a very short poem.Then through a process of encipherment, I translate it into a sequence of genetic nucleotides. With the assistance of a laboratory, I build this gene and implant it into the genome of a bacterium, replacing part of its genetic code with my poem. The organism in effect becomes the living embodiment of my text.

Lots of artists and scientists have experimented with the storage of information in DNA, and I could have finished this project long ago if I simply wanted to implant a poem into the DNA of an organism. It’s straightforward and not very expensive. But in none of those precedents does the organism know that the message is embedded in its genome.

Because I wanted the organism to respond to the poem, I’ve written it in such a way that the organism can read the gene sequence and interpret it as a set of instructions for building a protein whose sequence of amino acids is itself an encipherment for a completely different poem. I’m trying to genetically engineer a bacterium so that it can become not only an archive for storing my poem, it becomes a machine for writing a poem in response.

The host organism will, I hope, ultimately be an extremophile bacterium, a bacterium capable of surviving in all kinds of hostile environments. The bacterium I’ve selected, Deinococcus radiodurans, is capable of repairing its own DNA so quickly that it does not mutate very easily. Consequently, it’s a really durable repository for a poem. It’s well-adapted to the lethality of the universe and probably doesn’t need to evolve. It can survive in outer space. It can survive overdoses of radiation. You can scorch it and freeze it, and it doesn’t fail.

By putting my poem into this organism, I’d effectively be writing a book that might outlast terrestrial civilization, and it could be, theoretically, on the planet Earth when the sun explodes. I’m just trying to write a book that lasts forever—kind of an immortal aspiration.


Could Xenotext be a model for other texts, so that literature may survive all manner of cataclysm?

The point of the exercise is to provide permissions to other artists and writers who are building archives or libraries that are capable of withstanding threats to our own existence. There’s lots of potential for planetary disasters in our future—everything from astrophysical barrage to thermonuclear warfare. And I think it would be very sad if we don’t preserve our cultural heritage against these kinds of existential threats. And certainly in the 21st century, there’s anxiety about our potential extinction, given all of the advancing technological and environmental threats that face us.

Past practitioners have provided lots of permissions. In the late 1990s, Eduardo Kac famously enciphered a single line of the Bible into a colony of E. coli, and then subjected that colony to radiation in order to mutate the genetic sequence and see what happens to that line of biblical text when it’s altered by these mutations. That project provides lots of permissions for future work.

There’s something kitsch about that work though, because it relies upon the authority of the Bible for its impact. And for me, it’s metaphorically like dropping a Bible into the saddlebag of a donkey, and then sending the donkey into a minefield. Whereas in my case, I’d like the donkey to be at least converted to Christianity, if it’s going to be sent into the minefield; how can you get the donkey to read the book that it’s carrying? I’m trying to get the organism to have a dialogue with the English language.

I’m trying to speak to the very language of life itself—to indulge in a kind of communication with the genetic code. In the future we’ll probably use DNA as a means of storing information durably and efficiently. So far as we know, there are no durable ways of storing information that are convenient for epochal time, except in living things. Each organism on this planet carries in it messages from the dawn of time. DNA storage is a way of transmitting information across time, without degradation. Perhaps that is one of the things that life is for.


Out of the millions of possible configurations, you had to find an alphabetic code that would write a suitable response. Could you talk a bit about that process?

The genetic code describes how DNA molecules encode instructional information. The sequences of DNA consist of nucleotides, represented by the letters A, C, G and T in the public imagination. A for adenine, C for cytosine, G for guanine, T for thiamine—those sequences of A, C, G and T, in their various combinations, are effectively instructions for managing the organism by building proteins and controlling the expression of those proteins. The words in the genetic code all consist of three-letter combinations of that alphabet of four molecules.

So there are 64 ways of combining those four molecules into three-letter words. It’s a very small language. If I were to ask you to describe every single living thing in the world using a language that consists of nothing but three-letter words, and you’ve only got 64 of them, you’d probably be hard pressed to provide an exhaustive encyclopedia. But that’s what life is. It’s capable of producing all of the richness that we see around us with a very limited lexicon.

Most of the 64 words are instructions for building one of 20 proteins. There’s only 20 amino acids, so some of those instructions are redundant. You might have two or three different instructions that are useful for producing a specific protein, a specific amino acid. All I’ve done, is I’ve assigned, arbitrarily—at least according to some biochemical constraints—letters of the alphabet to one of those three-letter words.

Each of those three-letter words also corresponds to an amino acid, to which a complimentary letter of the alphabet is assigned. So the correlation between my message is derived from those sequence of three-letter words that make up a gene sequence. And they correspond, through a process of mutual encipherment, to letters that are associated with specific amino acids. So that’s how I’ve generated the code, my own idiosyncratic code, for enciphering the information into this genome.


The Xenotext, despite its technical novelty, is rooted in literary tradition. Your poem is encoded in the bacterium and the bacterium responds. Could you talk about this call and response format in poetic terms?

My favorite works of art integrate the material experience of the artwork, its message and its formal properties. They’re all speaking to each other in some deep dialogue. I don’t think there’s much reason to embody any given content in a specific medium, unless they actually dramatize each other, that there’s some foreordained kind of necessity.

In the case of the Xenotext, the two poems really are in dialogue with each other. They speak to each other through the pastoral traditions of elegies, in which the herd boy addresses the nymphet. So it’s a kind of ancient pastoral model that is nevertheless embodied, not simply in the content of the work, but in its formal dimensions, its relationship to the genetic code. It speaks directly to the outcome of the project, they talk to themselves about their embodiment in this form.

I’ve done my best to try to integrate all of the component parts of the work, so that they seem necessary, that they’re not extraneous to each other, that they’re tightly integrated. And that’s probably one of the reasons that the work seems uncanny to a lot of people. It’s a kind of work that seems as though I didn’t make it, so much as I discovered it. It kind of comes into the world of its own power. It has its own predestined existence. It’s the spooky part of the work, right? You look at the thing, and it just has its own kind of innate necessity to it.


Listening to your public reading, the musicality of your language is pronounced. What aspects of language are you trying to get the reader to engage with, and how?

Well, it varies from poem to poem. I might use the metaphor of a mixing board to describe poetry. Of the many features a poem might have, you might accentuate its meaningfulness, its thematic profundity, its emotional authenticity, its perceptual vividness, its acoustic musicality.

A whole variety of traits that you might want to accentuate—its formalistic rigorousness, its whimsical playfulness, its visual appeal upon the page. Maybe even the material experience of its publication. All of these constitute aspects of a poem, any one of which could be dialed up to the exclusion of other features. You could dial down other features of the poem to over-accentuate some other characteristic.

In my own work, I’m very curious about making things that sound good. Often I will dial up the musical properties of a poem, sometimes to the exclusion of other properties, producing something that is deliberately meaningful, as well as euphonically appealing. Lewis Carroll once said that “If you take care of the sounds, the sense will take care of itself.” And I think that’s true; you often end up inadvertently producing something that might be thematically profound or emotionally appealing by over-accentuating some other property of the work that has nothing to do with those features. It’s a happy side effect.

T.S. Eliot likewise noted that when asked about what his poems meant, he said he had no clue. Often you’re surprised by the meaningfulness of a poem. He very cleverly said that “Meaning is the meat that the burglar throws to the guard dog.” In an effort to get readers engaged in some other aspect of a poem, you make it thematically interesting or meaningful, so that at least if they don’t appreciate the other features of the work, they’ll at least have gotten a message out of it.

But most times, I have no clue when I’m writing. I don’t know what the outcome will be like. I actually don’t know what I want to say, necessarily, but I’m curious about what might happen, if I pursue some unusual feature of the creative process. So, I’ll set myself some unusual rule, and see what kind of work is generated by it.


What is the focus of your residency at MIT?

I have managed to get the project to function properly in E. coli. After about 11 years of work, I managed to successfully demonstrate that the construct works properly in that organism. The challenge right now is that, even though I’ve gotten it to work in E. coli, I’ve got to put that construct from the E. coli into this extremophile.

I have three benchmarks of success. I have to demonstrate that the gene sequence has been integrated into the chromosome of the organism. I have to demonstrate that the organism fluoresces in response to the presence of this protein—that it causes the organism to glow in the dark. And third, we have to be able to detect the entire mass of the protein in the organism, so that it’s stable enough that theoretically, you could reconstitute that protein and analyze it, and read the poem that it contains.

I’ve been able to get the first two of those constraints fulfilled, but not the third. We can’t detect all of the mass of the protein. It’s being metabolized too quickly, or it’s being censored or destroyed by the organism, before we can actually read the poem. I can’t find the whole mass of the protein there.

So I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve done those experiments on the extremophile. I’m hoping that with some guidance from geneticists and biologists in the scientific community affiliated with MIT, I might be able to improve the construct that I’ve currently got, and actually conduct an experiment.


At your talk, you mentioned your rebuttal to the old “poetry is dead” argument was to create an unkillable poem. Literature, and the humanities in general, have been challenged for decades now. What are some of your observations about the current state of poetry?

Certainly there’s a sense among poets that poetry is under siege. That as a cultural activity, it’s somewhat antiquated. It used to be that poets founded civilizations, founded religious traditions. That role for poetry is now highly constrained. And poets are in part to blame for this, although culture, of course, is undergoing its own mutations that make it less appealing to imagine poetry. Most people probably get their poetic appreciation from musicians rather than from poets.

I think poetry probably does a poor job of responding to socio-technological circumstances. To me, it’s very odd that we continue to write about our divorces and our failed love relationships, when there are robots on Titan taking pictures of orange ethane lakes that boggle the imagination. There are surreal landscapes that exceed our capacity to dream them. And poets largely ignore it. All of the scientific advancement and wonderment of the universe seems to have been lost upon them now.

I think the greatest way to impugn poetry is simply to note that even though humans have set foot on the moon, there is no canonical poem about that moment. And you can bet that if the ancient Greeks had ridden a trireme to the moon, there would be a 12-volume epic poem about that grandiose adventure.

The 20th century has seen intercontinental battles and extraterrestrial voyages that far exceed the mythic character of any past work of literature. Yet, they don’t feature very prominently at all in the imagination of poets. I regard the moon landing as the most important event that has ever taken place among living things on this planet.

It’s a moment of such evolutionary significance. The fact that it’s my first memory is tantamount to saying that my first memory is of a lungfish hopping from one tide pool across the land for the first time to another tide pool. That seems to me like a big moment in the history of life itself, to actually deliberately set foot on an alien world. And in effect, to usher in a new phase of our own advancement as a species, to protect ourselves against the threats of extinction by diversifying our home so that we can live on multiple worlds. No other life form has ever achieved that kind of stature.

Yet, there is no great epic poem about it. Young poets could probably distinguish themselves by producing a really marvelous epic adventure about that experience. I’m not suggesting that poets have to somehow address science as a kind of poetic future, exclusively, but it does seem to me mystifying that they don’t. Poets are competing, of course, with all kinds of other cultural activity. And I joke that every day, I’m losing market share to online porn.